Sunday, January 1, 2012
Matthew 5:3-10 (NRSV) – The Beatitudes
3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’
On the eighth day of Christmas my true love gave to me? … eight maids a-milking.
A few Sunday evenings ago, during OUC’s Christmas carolling night for visitors to Taffy Lane, when one of our carollers shouted out, “let’s sing The 12 Days of Christmas,” I thought to myself (actually I probably whispered cynically), “sure – but could we start with verse 12” … just to get it over with quicker.
But I realized again how embedded this carol has become in our 21st Century North American celebration (including Bob & Doug McKenzie’s version on SCTV); and that made me recollect what I had come to know about this carol over the years. So just to confirm some of the things I had assumed about this pop culture phenomenon, I visited Wikipedia to see what others remembered. The thing I wanted to remind myself of was an idea I learned back in the early days of my ministry, that the 12 Days of Christmas was really a “Catholic catechism song of late 18th Century Britain to help young Catholics learn their faith at a time when practicing Catholicism was criminalized in England.” Has anyone else ever heard that? It was a persuasive idea, actually, with each of the 12 gifts symbolically representing some aspect of the Christian faith, and that our “true love” who gives the gifts in the carol is God. On the 1st day of Christmas, our true love gave to us a partridge in a pear tree – God giving us Jesus, who died for us on a cross. On the 2nd day of Christmas – 2 turtle doves – the Old and New Testaments. On the 3rd day – 3 French hens – the 3 Wise Men bearing gifts. Then 4 calling birds – the 4 Gospels … and so on.* In fact, if you believe Wikipedia, the suggestion is relatively recent actually, from a Canadian hymnologist in the late 1970’s.
But the idea is still compelling to me for some reason. So much so, that when I thought about preaching on January 1, which by the way is always the 8th Day of Christmas, I wondered what 8 milk-maids symbolized. But before we get to that, one more reminder about the 12 Days of Christmas … even though this English Christmas carol may not have religious origins, the 12 days themselves do … the Christian church has been celebrating them for centuries in worship as the Christmas season, from December 25 (the first day of Christmas) until January 5 (the day before Epiphany begins – that season when Christ’s light is revealed to the wider world through the foreign visitors we know as Wise Ones).
Which brings us back to today, the 8th Day of Christmas, on which God, our True Love, gives to us … the eight Beatitudes from Matthew’s Gospel, which you heard earlier – the blessings of God for the people of God – 8 maids a-milking. It somehow feels appropriate that on the 8th Day of Christmas, which also happens to be the 1st day of a new year, that God’s blessing be remembered … the blessing that has carried us through 2011, and the anticipation of God’s gracious presence with us as we cross the threshold into 2012.
Blessing – a fascinating word and a provocative idea – often misunderstood and misrepresented – but a sacred power nonetheless that can and will alter the way you embrace this New Year, if and when you give it room in your heart to transform your outlook on life and inspire your engagement in life. Blessing has been described in many ways, but for me at the heart of divine blessing is God’s promise of presence and power. So I invite you to look with me again at these beatitudes and ponder their significance and potential for you in the year ahead.
In general, I see two categories of beatitudes in which blessing is experienced … blessed in being and blessed in doing. The first 3 or 4 blessings, depending on how you read them, describe life’s circumstances that simply are, over which people have very little, if any, control … poverty, grief, humiliation, hunger. In their earliest renderings (like in Luke’s gospel), these life circumstances described in the beatitudes were probably about the actual material realities of the earliest followers of Jesus – they were often poor and hungry, grieving and humiliated because of their beliefs. But even when these circumstances are understood more spiritually, like Matthew interprets them, they still describe the human condition of emptiness that can oppress us and hold us back from fully realizing God’s promise. So, whether you feel poor financially or spiritually, whether your refrigerator is empty or your heart, whether you’re mourning the death of a loved one or of a lifestyle long gone, whether you are humiliated by others or by your own self-criticism, Jesus’ promise is that God is with you. You are never alone. When life feels like it’s playing a cruel joke on you, Jesus assures you that God is right there with you in your deepest aches and emptiness … and that’s why you are blessed. You are blessed because God chooses to bear the worst with you and faithfully wait with you until the tide turns. God’s presence is your blessing.
The other four beatitudes, from my perspective, have more to do with doing. Blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers … blessed are those who are persecuted for doing the right things. For you, striving to share God’s goodness, even when life is a struggle … wanting to be a light-bearer of God’s grace and peace, even in the darkness of strained relationships … longing to forgive and see the possibilities in others, even as you are being ignored and hurt … choosing to see God’s love and life in the everyday life you live – for you, O blessed one, this is blessing enough … because you gratefully appreciate that it’s God’s power at work in you. And yes, that is blessing enough.
As we look to the new year, how will you receive and give God’s blessing? When and where will you experience the presence and power of God’s realm? With whom will you share the peace of Christ’s caring presence? For whom will you embody Christ’s loving power? God’s blessing is like daily bread … there is always enough to carry us through another day, and always enough to share with others. And that really has always been the quintessential mark of true blessing … when the realization that we are indeed blessed in every circumstance inspires us to bless others ourselves.
May 2012 be graced with beatitude, for you personally and for our congregation, in the Spirit of Christ.
* From Wikipedia:
|A partridge in a pear tree||Jesus|
|Two turtle doves||The Old and New Testaments|
|Three French hens||The three kings bearing gifts|
|Four calling [sic] birds||The four Gospels|
|Five gold rings||The Torah or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament|
|Six geese a-laying||The six days of Creation|
|Seven swans a-swimming||Seven gifts of the Holy Spirit|
|Eight maids a-milking||The eight Beatitudes|
|Nine ladies dancing||Nine fruits of the Holy Spirit|
|Ten lords a-leaping||The Ten Commandments|
|Eleven pipers piping||The eleven faithful Apostles|
|Twelve drummers drumming||The twelve points of the Apostles’ Creed|